The Real Imposture
Leslie Jamison for The New Yorker has a fantastic history of imposter syndrome, framed through the twinned but mirrored lenses of Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes (the two white women who’d originally presented the idea) and Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey (the two women of color who later lodged the most prominent critique).
I’m not going to rehash the article here; you really do need to just make some time to read it. There’s just a couple of bits that come up along the way I want to highlight here.
For many younger women, there’s a horoscope effect at play: certain aspects of the experience, if defined capaciously enough, are so common as to be essentially universal. The Australian scholar and critic Rebecca Harkins-Cross—who often felt like an impostor during her university days, struggling with insecurities she now connects to her working-class background—has become suspicious of the ways impostor syndrome serves a capitalist culture of striving. She told me, “Capitalism needs us all to feel like impostors, because feeling like an impostor ensures we’ll strive for endless progress: work harder, make more money, try to be better than our former selves and the people around us.”
Much of the Tulshyan and Burey critique (as near as I can tell from the article, anyway) centers around how the idea of imposter syndrome served to internalize and pathologize into a personal responsibility something that’s more aptly a systemic and external force in need of direct challenge.
Burey, who was born in Jamaica, didn’t feel like an impostor; she felt enraged by the systems that had been built to disenfranchise her. She also didn’t experience any yearning to belong, to inhabit certain spaces of power. “White women want to access power, they want to sit at the table,” she told me. “Black women say, This table is rotten, this table is hurting everyone.” She resisted knee-jerk empowerment rhetoric that seemed to encourage a damaging bravado: “I didn’t want to beef up myself to inflict more harm.”
In other words, by arguing that people turn inward to solve a crisis of confidence, the forces arrayed against building solidarity and capacity will remain unbowed.
I’ve summoned a flavor of imposter syndrome myself (more than once) in the wake of my autism diagnosis. There’s a degree to which the idea can be limitedly helpful during the retcon that comes with a late diagnosis, although in my case it also was causing me to feel like I didn’t belong in the community of other autistics, either.
That said, even if this isn’t acknowledged (although it should be), those personal summonings, too, ultimately trace their origins to the fact that this is what extractive capital does to us: it pits us against one another under the false premise of scarcity. When we’re sold on (and sold to) the idea that we have no value unless we’re contributing to that very extraction, of course we’re going to land, both personally and politically, on alienation and othering—of our own selves, and of one another.
Maybe imposter syndrome really is us trying to remind ourselves of what we already know: that in ways both large and small we’ve let them break the world, and through the breaking of it, us. Inside, we know this is not who we are supposed to be.